three short texts

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By GIORGIO AGAMBEN*

The Italian philosopher discusses philosophical and political issues that affect the entire West

 

Forgive us our debts

The prayer par excellence – the one that Jesus himself dictated to us (“this is how you pray”) – contains a passage that our time struggles at all costs to contradict and which, for this reason, it would be good to remember, precisely today that everything seems to be in order. being reduced to a ferocious two-sided law: credit/debit. Dimitte nobis debita nostra… “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”.

The Greek original is even more peremptory: aphes emin ta opheilemata emon, “let go, remove our debts from us.” Reflecting on these words in 1941, in the middle of the world war, a great Italian jurist, Francesco Carnelutti, observes that, if it is a truth of the physical world that you cannot erase what happened, the same cannot be said of the moral world, that it is precisely defined by the possibility of remitting and forgiving.

It is necessary, in the first place, to dispel the prejudice that debt is a genuinely economic law. Even disregarding the problem of what is meant when speaking of an economic “law”, a brief genealogical investigation shows that the origin of the concept of debt is not economic, but juridical and religious – two dimensions that, the further one goes back to pre- history, the more they tend to get confused. If, as Carl Schmitt has shown, the notion of Debt, which in German means debt and guilt, is at the base of the edifice of law, no less convincing is the intuition of a great historian of religions, David Flüsser.

One day, while he was reflecting in an Athens square on the meaning of the word stuck, a term that in the Gospels means “faith”, saw in front of him the inscription trapeza you pisteos in bold letters. It didn't take long for him to realize that he was in front of a bank sign (Credit Bank) and at the same time understand that the meaning of the word I had been mulling over for years had to do with credit – the credit we enjoy with God and that God enjoys with us, since we believe in him. For these, Paul can say in a famous definition that “faith is the substance of things hoped for”: it is what gives reality to what does not yet exist, but in which we believe and trust, on which we stake our credit and our word. Something like a credit exists only to the extent that our faith can give substance to it.

The world we live in today has appropriated this legal and religious concept and turned it into a lethal and implacable device, before which every human need must bow. This device, in which all of our stuck, all our faith, is money, understood as the very form of credit/debit. The Bank – with its somber officials and specialists – has taken the place of the Church and its priests and, by governing credit, manipulates and manages the faith – the meager, uncertain trust – that our time still has in itself.

And it does so in the most irresponsible and unscrupulous way, trying to cash in on the trust and hopes of human beings, establishing the credit that each one can enjoy and the price that he must pay for it (even the credit of the States, which sweetly abdicated their sovereignty). Thus, by governing credit, it governs not only the world, but also the future of men, a future that the emergency wants ever shorter and with an expiration date. And if politics no longer seems possible today, it is because financial power has in fact confiscated all faith and all future, all time and all expectations.

The so-called emergency we are going through – but what is called an emergency, that much is clear, is just the normal way in which today's capitalism works – started with a series of reckless credit operations, on credits that were cashed and resold dozens of times before they could be done. This means, in other words, that financial capitalism – and the banks that are its main organ – works by playing with the credit – that is, with the faith – of men.

If today a government – ​​in Italy as elsewhere – really wants to move in a different direction than that which it seeks to impose everywhere else, it is above all the money/credit/debt device that it must resolutely question as a system of government. Only in this way will a policy become possible again – a policy that does not accept being strangled by the false dogma – pseudo-religious and non-economic – of the universal and irrevocable debt and restores to men the memory and faith in the words they recited so many times as children: “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors”.

 

technology and government

Some of the most perceptive minds of the XNUMXth century agreed in identifying the political challenge of our time with the ability to govern technological development. “The decisive question”, it was written, “is how a political system, whatever it may be, can be adapted today to the age of technology. I don't know the answer to this problem. I'm not convinced it's democracy." Others compared the control of technology to the work of a new Hercules: “those who succeed in subjecting the technique that has escaped all control and inserting it into a concrete order will have responded to the problems of the present much more than those who, with the means of technology, seek to land on the Moon or Mars.”

The fact is that the powers that seem to guide and use technological development for their own ends are actually more or less unconsciously guided by it. Both the most totalitarian regimes, such as fascism and Bolshevism, and the so-called democratic share this inability to govern technology to such an extent that they end up transforming themselves almost inadvertently in the direction required by the very technologies they believed they were using for their own ends.

A scientist who gave a new formulation to the theory of evolution, Lodewijk Bolk, thus saw in the hypertrophy of technological development a mortal danger for the survival of the human species. The increasing development of scientific and social technologies produces, in fact, a true and real inhibition of vitality, for which “the more humanity advances on the path of technique, the closer it approaches that fatal point, whose progress will mean destruction. And certainly it is not in the nature of man to dwell on it.” An instructive example is provided by the technology of weapons, which has produced devices, the use of which implies the destruction of life on earth – therefore also of those who possess them and who, as we see today, continue, despite this, to threaten to use them.

It is possible, then, that the inability to govern technology is inscribed in the very concept of “government”, that is, in the idea that politics is in cybernetic nature itself, that is, the art of “governing” (kybernes is in Greek the pilot of the ship) the lives of human beings and their goods. Technique cannot be governed because it is the very form of governmentality. What has traditionally been interpreted – from Scholasticism to Spengler – as the essentially instrumental nature of technique reveals the inherent nature of an instrumentality in our conception of politics.

Here, the idea that the technological tool is something that, operating according to its own purpose, can be used for the purposes of an external agent is decisive. As the example of the ax shows, which cuts by virtue of its sharp blade, but is used by the carpenter to make a table, so the technical tool can serve an alien purpose only in so far as it achieves its own. Ultimately, this means – as is evident in the most advanced technological devices – that the technique achieves its own end, apparently serving someone else's end.

In the same sense, politics, understood as oikonomia and government, is that operation that reaches an end that seems to transcend it, but which in reality is immanent to it. Politics and technique are identical, that is, without residues and a political control of technique will not be possible until we have abandoned our instrumental, that is, governmental, conception of politics.

 

the place of politics

The forces pushing towards a world political unity seemed so much stronger than those directed towards a more limited political unit, such as the European one, that it could be written that the unity of Europe could only be “a collateral product, to not to say discarding, of the global unity of the planet”. In reality, the forces that drive the achievement of unity have proved to be equally insufficient for the planet and for Europe.

If European unity, to give life to a true constituent Assembly, would have presupposed something like a “European patriotism”, which did not exist anywhere (and the first consequence was the failure of the referendums for the approval of the so-called European constitution which, from a legal point of view, it is not a constitution, but only an agreement between States), the political unity of the planet presupposed a “patriotism of the species and/or of the human race” even more difficult to find. As Gilson opportunely recalled, a society of political societies cannot itself be political, but needs a metapolitical principle, as was, at least in the past, religion.

It is possible, then, that what governments have tried to achieve through the pandemic is really such “species patriotism”. But they could only do so parodically in the form of shared terror in the face of an invisible enemy, the result of which was not the production of a homeland and community ties, but rather of a mass founded on an unprecedented separation, demonstrating that distance could not , under no circumstances – as an obsessively repeated hateful slogan intended – constitute a “social” bond.

Apparently, the use of a principle capable of replacing religion, which was soon identified in science (in this case, medicine), was more effective. But here too medicine as a religion showed its inadequacy, not only because in exchange for the salvation of an entire existence it could only promise the cure of diseases, but also and above all because, in order to assert itself as a religion, medicine had to produce a a state of incessant threat and insecurity, in which viruses and pandemics followed one another without respite and no vaccine guaranteed that serenity that the sacraments had been able to guarantee to the faithful.

The project of creating a patriotism of the species failed in such a way that it ended up being necessary, once again and brazenly, to resort to the creation of a determined political enemy, identified not by chance among those who had already played this role: Russia, China , Will.

The political culture of the West has not, in this sense, taken a single step in a direction different from the one in which it had always moved, and only if all the principles and values ​​on which it is based are questioned will it be possible to think of the place of politics in another way. way beyond both nation-states and the global economic state.

*Giorgio Agamben drove the Collège international de philosophie in Paris. Author, among other books, from What is Philosophy? (boitempo).

Translation: Juliana Hass.

Originally published on the website quodlibet.

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